Hitchcock picks veteran over rookie in playoffs

VOORHEES, N.J. -- The Philadelphia Flyers need Robert Esche
to block shots better than he predicts.

Less than a month ago, Esche said rookie Antero Niittymaki would be the Flyers' starting goaltender in the playoffs. On Wednesday, coach Ken Hitchcock gave the job to Esche. Considering Esche played seven of the last nine regular-season games, the decision was no surprise.

"We have two really good goaltenders," Hitchcock said. "We wanted to see how Robert's season unfolded once he got healthy. There were a lot of ebbs and flows since January. Our feeling was
we wanted to start with the experienced player and go from there."

The Flyers finished second behind the New Jersey Devils in the
Atlantic Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference. They'll meet
the Sabres in the best-of-seven first-round series, starting
Saturday in Buffalo.

Esche missed one month with a groin injury and finished 22-11-5
with an .897 save percentage. Niittymaki was 23-15-6 with an .895
save percentage. Both players had a 2.97 goals-against average.

"My game has been pretty solid since I got back from the
injury," Esche said. "After the Olympics, it went up a level. In
the last few weeks, it went up a level. I still think I have more
to offer."

Esche was outstanding during the playoffs two years ago, leading
the Flyers within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals. Overall,
he's 11-7 with a 2.31 goals-against average in 19 postseason games.

Niittymaki helped the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms win the Calder Cup last season, and was the tournament MVP of the Olympics two
months ago when he led Finland to the silver medal. Esche played
one game for the United States, a loss against Russia.

Niittymaki started 17 straight games when Esche went down with a
groin injury in mid-December. He helped the Flyers go 8-2-1 during
an 11-game road trip.

"It certainly wasn't based on anybody's poor play and that's
what made it such a difficult decision," Hitchcock said. "I
really felt strongly about letting it play out. It wasn't a
competition between two goalies.

"This was watching a veteran goalie to see if he can get his
game in order and he did and he found his game and he found his
personality and he accepted the responsibility that goes with the

Hitchcock has no plans to flip-flop his goalies in the playoffs,
though he pulled Esche in an important game against the Devils
after falling behind 3-0 in the second period Sunday.

"When you start a goalie, you expect him to go the distance,"
Hitchcock said.